Saturday, April 27, 2013

Olive Oatman: A Survivor's Story

Olive Oatman, photographed in 1857

Olive Oatman is not the only well-known captive who was recovered and returned to her home community, but her story does exemplify what happened to women who were captured by Native American Indians and the ongoing emotional trauma they experienced when they were returned to their families. These women lived in two worlds, and they were often rejected by both. Olive Oatman not only carried the physical scars of her ordeal for the rest of her life, but emotional scars, as well. 

Massacre in Arizona

Olive Ann Oatman was born in Illinois in September of either 1837 or 1839. There were seven children in the family: Lorenzo, Mary Ann, Charity Ann, Lucy, Olive, Roland and Royce. In 1850, when Olive was 13 or 14 years old, her parents, Royce and Mary Ann Oatman, decided to join a wagon train in Independence, Missouri headed west for California. For unknown reasons, the train split up several times and eventually the Oatmans were left to travel alone through dangerous territory. Reiter's The Women claims Royce Oatman was frustrated by the constant feuding in the wagon train and decided to press on alone, but this is doubtful as he would have known that leaving the train would be reckless and dangerous. It is more logical to assume they were left behind when families left the train to stay in towns along the way then the train split due to arguments, which did happen on occasion. 

Regardless of the reason for their isolation, the Oatmans were alone and traveling through the Gila River Valley when their wagon was attacked by Yavapai, possibly Tolkepayas. Olive and her sister, Mary Ann, who was seven-years-old, watched in horror as every member of their family was beaten and killed. At the time, Olive did not know her brother survived the attack. He appeared to be dead when the two young women were led away from the wagon. 

Lorenzo's Search

Lorenzo Oatman was born in 1836 in Illinois, which would have made him a year or two older than Olive, and remarkably, Lorenzo did survive the attack of the Tolkepayas. 

Lorenzo Oatman, courtesy of Library of Congress

One can assume that he took time to recover from his wounds and possibly buried his family, although doing so would have alerted the Tolkepayas to the fact that he had survived. He may have started out immediately to find help, and he did find help. He somehow managed to locate part of the wagon train they had lost at Maricopa Wells. He survived his wounds and, knowing his sisters were still alive, vowed to spend the rest of his life tracking them down. Lorenzo Oatman immediately began a five year search for Olive and Mary Ann.      

Sold to Mojaves, and More Tragic Moments for Olive

Olive and her sister served as slaves of the Tolkepayas for a year, then they were sold to a Mojave chief for blankets, vegetables and horses. They followed their captors on foot for ten days to their encampment further north on the Colorado River near what is now Needles, California. The girls had no idea what to expect from their new captors, but discovered they were treated better, received few beatings, and were allowed to grow their own food. Their chins were marked with blue cactus tattoos. Some sources say this was a mark of their status as slaves. However, according to historians, most Mojave women at that time had tattoos on their chins. 
Olive Oatman

Then in 1853, Olive experienced yet another devastating loss. A severe drought hit the area and the crops died, along with many of the tribe members and her precious sister, little Mary Ann. Olive was alone.

Possibilities for Escape

According to Margot Miflin's "10 Myths About Olive Oatman," in 1854, 200 white men met with the Mojave to mingle and trade when the Whipple Expedition came through to survey the area for the railroads. Some historians have questioned why Olive did not leave at this point. There were reportedly numerous traders who came to the Mojave encampment and she could have escaped or asked to be traded. However, she must have known that she would never again be accepted into the society of the small towns in the area because she had lived so long with the Mojave. She may have feared retribution and punishment. She knew no one would accompany her to a settlement and may have feared she would receive even worse treatment from a white man if she dared to ask for help. 

Olive also believed her entire family was massacred. As you'll recall, she didn't know Lorenzo survived, and when Mary Ann died I would think she would have felt as if the Mojave was the only family she had left. According to Mifflin, Mary Ann and Olive were not treated as slaved by the Mojave. They were adopted by a family and given the family name of Oach. The Mojave referred to them as ahwe, a word that means stranger, not slave. 

Rescued and Reunited

Lorenzo did survive, and he was still searching. At some point during the winter of 1855-56 the U.S. Army received word that Olive was living with the Mojave and began negotiations for her return. On February 28, 1856, Olive Oatman was ransomed and reunited with Lorenzo Oatman at Fort Yuma, Arizona. According to the Sherrie McLeRoy, Olive was ransomed for a horse, blanket, and beads.

Joan Reiter reports in The Women that Olive's skin was browned and burnt by years of exposure to the sun and she was barely recognizable when she was finally reunited with her brother. She refused to speak and seemed to have trouble remembering the English language. She was wearing a skirt made of bark and other Mojave garments, but members of the community provided her with clothing and her brother and cousins helped her adjust. She wore a veil to cover the tattoos.

Photo of Olive Oatman, Arizona Historical Society

Olive spent days with her face hidden in her hands, perhaps because those who rescued and cared for her recoiled in prejudice and horror when they saw that tattoos, but this is my speculation. I also believe she suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress.

Tours and Lecture Circuit

Shortly after she was rescued, the Reverend Royal B. Stratton wrote the story of Olive and little Mary Ann in Life Among the Indians, which was wildly successful because it was one of few published stories about what happened to captives. Lorenzo and Olive received enough payment from sales of the book to pay for their educations at the University of the Pacific. After graduation, they moved to New York with Stratton and Olive toured the city, lecturing to promote the book. During these tours she removed the veil from her face to show the tattoos.

The Marriage of Olive Oatman and John Brant Fairchild

In 1865, Olive Oatman met and married a cattleman, John Brant Fairchild (1830-1907). Fairchild burned all copies of Stratton's book and the tours ended.

The couple lived in Detroit for a short time then moved to Texas. Fairchild was the president of the City Bank of Sherman, Texas and eventually became wealthy through land investments. Olive and John adopted a daughter and Olive tried to work with orphaned children, but suffered often from depression.

Continued Post Traumatic Stress

According to Mifflin, and contrary to popular misconceptions, Olive was never admitted to an insane asylum, though she did spend three months at a medical spa in Canada. In contemporary times, it would be recognized that she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder the rest of her life.

However, the Reverend Stratton was committed to an asylum and died there in 1875.

Lorenzo Oatman married Edna Amelia Canfield on August 3, 1860 in Illinois. He died in Nebraska on October 8, 1901.

Olive Oatman Fairchild died of a heart attack on March 20, 1903. She is buried in West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas. According to the TSHA, a Texas historical marker was placed on her grave in 1969.

There is conflicting information regarding the details of Olive Oatman's life in captivity and after she was returned to her family. I have created this article using what I consider to be the most reliable sources available. 

  • Margot, Miffin. "Ten Myths About Olive Oatman." True West Magazine. Published August 1, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2013. 
  • McLeRoy, Sherrie S. "FAIRCHILD, OLIVE ANN OATMAN," Handbook of Texas Online. Published by the Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved April 26, 2013. 
  • Reiter, Joan Swallow. "The Great Marriage Boom." The Old West: The Women. Canada: 1978.

Update: This article has been copied, or technically, stolen. It was written by me for this website and belongs to me. If you see it somewhere else online please do not click to read it. Thank you. 


Max said...

So fascinating! Poor woman

Anonymous said...

A woman on the series Hell On Wheels has a woman with the same tattoos, wonder if her character was created from Olive's story.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That was my first thought--they based her on Olive Oatman! However, Olive Oatman's story was more positive once she was rescued, unlike many women who were kidnapped and later rescued and found themselves unable to rejoin "white" society. I like Oatman's story because she strikes me as being a remarkably strong woman. Then again, the character on Hell on Wheels is remarkably strong, as well. I really like her character. I think it's a well-written show and enjoy watching it. Glad I found another fan of the show! The recent episode where the Cullen exposed The Swede was one of the best television episodes I've seen. Thanks for reading!

Unknown said...

my name is gail lee a erichsen----- my gg grandmother sarah Elizabeth sperry abbott, told me about her cousin [olive ann oatman] and what had happened to her, the family was Mormons on their way , Royce and mary ann sperry oatman,with their 7 children and expecting another one left the wagon train ==to go out on their own, yes there had been discussions and disagreements--- the story is true ==== after olive ann was found by her brother loranzo they reconnected and did travel to tell what had happened, I was a young girl when I first was told about this sad story, my ggg grandfather Charles sperry is buried in nephi,utah, mary ann sperry oatman was his sister, I have my gggranpa his book, he tells about his nephew and neice and how they came to nephi,utah to see him and his family---- my grandmother and mother had a paper on this story and passed it to me, I had a home fire years ago, but I know this is all very true. I have now met a man who he is also a 3rd cousin and he also knew of this story. she was cut on her face the Indians would dig under the rocks in a river bed, take the clay cook iver a fire and the clay became blue, the clay then put into her cuts and it stayed forever. yes she wore a veil, yes she was depressed but also she had a good loving look on life her sadness was the losing of her parents and siblings, she buried her little sister after mary ann starved for not enough food. I now live in manti,utah my gg grandmother was 94 when she told me about her cousin and the visit they had.

Unknown said...

what do you want I told you that olive ann was my grandmother cousin, that I knew the story was real I grew up hearing of her and Alonzo, that olive and Alonzo came to see my gg grandmother in nephi,utah I was left picture and papers

Unknown said...

olive ann oatman, was my gg granma cousin, after olive awas found she and Alonzo oatman came to nephi,utah to visit family, Charles sperry my ggg granpa, was her uncle---- they were all Mormons, the story is all true. I was a young girl when first given family papers , my granmothe told me about this sad story of her 2nd cousin, I am her 4th cousin--- I was told about how the dye was permanent and would never come out as she did try to have it removed, the dye was found under the rocks in a river bed, put into a clay pot and cooked, the skin was then cut under her mouth, once the dye in it could never be removed it was a marking of the tribe. my grandmother told me how happy they were to have her back alive and her spirit was so kind and loveable, she missed her parents and she seen them all killed even as she and mary ann age 7 were taken away on the horseback, olive and little sister thought all were left dead, it was about 5 years later due to loranzo finding her, never giving up the search, and to find her alive olive tried to find mary ann grave. this sad thing took place in what is now oatman, airzona==== the town was named for the family, my gg uncle had a monument placed there years ago [joseph abbott]

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Oh my goodness of course it is true! I never meant to imply it was not and I apologize if I gave that impression. What I meant to say is there are conflicting stories in books I use for sources. I prefer to use family accounts, like the one you just posted, because they tend to be more accurate. You have no idea how much I appreciate the fact that you took the time to write about your family's story. I receive emails about this post two to three times a week from people asking if I have more information on Olive Oatman and you just provided it for us all. Thank you so much. Your time and information is greatly appreciated.

mz said...

Very interesting information from both of you. Thank you for sharing. I found this site searching for the name. I am listening to The Ghost Inside My Child which is about reincarnation memories. A 5 year old child remembers being captured by Indians and her memory desceibes what you shared here Darla. She recognized the picture of Ms. Oatman's portrait. Amazing.

Margot mifflin said...

You can read her full story in the bigraphy I wrote about her, which is referenced on both the Hell on Wheels Eva page and is shown in the Ghost Inside My Child episode: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. i interviewed many Oatman relatives in researching it, and have met many more on book tours. Gail Lee, I wish I had see your family papers when I was researching it, I'd still be curious to know what you have.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Margot, I do hope we can connect you with Gail Lee. If you are interested, you are welcome to guest post on my blog about your book and your research so readers will know where to find it. I'd be interested to know how closely you believe the Hell on Wheels representation of Eva compares to Olive Oatman. Thank you for reading!

Margot Mifflin said...

Thanks Darla Sue. I would just say here (though you're welcome to copy/repost!)that though the Eva character is based on Oatman, it really relates only to her backstory as a tattooed captive; they departed entirely from the facts of her post-captive life (though I only saw the first season...) This is just the latest of many Oatman adaptations that have been done in film, literature, theater, art and radio, which I address in the last chapter of my book, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. I cover some of them here: And there are some recent additions: An Appalachian folk duo called Jeni and Billy just released a song about Oatman called "The Days of the Blue Tattoo" that they've posted here: Enjoy!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you Margot! And thanks for stopping by!

Carole M said...

Hi my name is Carole and I live in Detroit Michigan. I've read that Olive Oatman-Fairchild and her husband John Brant Fairchild lived in Detroit for a short period of time. I would love to know where they lived. I've been researching this trying to find an address. If anyone has any info please let me know.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

This is a popular post, Carole, and hopefully someone will see it who has information on the Detroit connection. I will also check my resources--I moved recently and I'm still unpacking, but I'll do the best I can to see what I can find out for you.

Unknown said...

I just found out Olive Oatman was my first cousin 4x removed via 23 and me!

Unknown said...

I just learned through 23 and me that Olive Oatman was my first cousin 4 x removed.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

You took a DNA test to find out? That is becoming more common in genealogy searches, but generally when people already suspect the relationship exists. I love working on genealogy--it's fascinating.

Nina Hagen said...

The Searchers

Anonymous said...

I love reading About Olive . 😁😁😁

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...